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Phenomenology of Art: Overcoming the Specters of Platonism, Newtonism, and Cartesianism

Perspectival study of the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1481

One of the many significant elements that Rosalind Krauss incorporates in her theory of installation and ‘post-medium’ art, is an emphasis on the phenomenological aspect of art—Merleau-Ponty’s in particular—a philosophy that expounds the way subjects perceive the world around them in a manner that is ‘pre-objective’. This form of awareness about the world and the objects existing within it is based on a phenomenological process profoundly influenced by the milieu of a being who is correlated with the phenomenal world; it posits a worldview in which conscious is not guided by a set preconceptions that determine an object or event that one encounters. As Levinas succinctly puts it, phenomenology is (but not necessarily limited to) a divorce between philosophy and reason, a tie that remained unabridged since the dawn of Western philosophy that began with Plato and continued into the 20th century with Heidegger’s ontological philosophy of being as a dominant philosophic discourse1. The emphasis on the body as an origin of being that is constituted out of a unique totality between it and the world, challenges (1) the Platonic subsumption of particulars under universals, (2) the Newtonian three-dimensional spatiality that underlies Empiricism, and (3) the assumed Cartesian duality of res Cogitans and res Extentia—where the former maintains priority over the later, perpetuating a residue of solipsism to loom in the works of Descartes’ successors. These three remnants of thought that are latently manifested within the art discourse, will be referred to as ‘specters’, or as Levinas puts it, “the totalitarianism[s] or imperialism[s] of the Same” that haunt the conditions of the discursive field in which art is produced and encountered. For Levinas, a liberation of art from these monistic rules that dominate the field within which it comes to existence, also correlates with a liberation of humanity—an excessive substance that cannot be satiated by knowledge and can only be yielded through an act of encounter.

As Danto puts it, “The history of art is the history of the suppression of art”2. Here however, ‘suppression’ will not only be deemed as a political one, but also as a fundamentally philosophical and ontological; unlike political suppression, the emphasis on philosophical suppression—which consists of monisms that include ontological and metaphysical pre-assumptions about particulars and universals, mind and body, and the necessary homogeneous three-dimensional Newtonian spatiality—continue to haunt art discourse even long after its philosophical authority had been dismantled, overturned, beheaded, or deceased. These specters of philosophy will also manifest themselves in the conditions of modernity and post-modernity, which ultimately, either suppress or homogenize the ontological, phenomenological, and political essence of art. Here, it is worth borrowing the notion of ‘specter’ from Derrida’s Spectres of Marx:

It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable…without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppres­sions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarian­ism.3

They are always there, spectres, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet.4

In outlining a sort of ethics that accounts responsibility not only towards victims who have already been victimized, but also towards those victims who have yet to be, Derrida also makes an important point about the prevalence of haunting specters from the past—whether these are political, philosophical, ethical, or even aesthetical. Specters impose a kernel around which human discourse dwells; they are the constituents that construct an ontology and metaphysics through which art and politics are defined and given their meaning and potential. The aim of this essay will demonstrate how these specters haunt the field in which art comes into existence, and demonstrate how Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology can bring agency as a prerequisite for the formation of an event qua creation and apprehension of artwork. Through an exposition of Merleau-Ponty’s “Cezanne’s Doubt” and Rosalind Krauss’s theory of installation and ‘post-medium’ art, the phenomenological significance of their theories will be explicated, along with a claim that posits the significance of embodied perception and creation as a potential ground for emancipating works of art and their subjects from constraining conventions—an act which ultimately, promises a lead way to action and autonomy. The political implications will attempted to be bridged through the philosophy of Levinas—who although expresses a few contentions with Marelu-Ponty’s phenomenology, is nevertheless indispensable in demonstrating the parallelism between the phenomenological encounter between two human ‘faces’ in the political realm, and the encounter that occurs between a beholder and a work of art—that which is also as an inseparable part of the artist who created it. These encounters with art and beings as “faces” are inherently an insatiable excess that escape subsumption by the formerly mentioned ‘specters’ and ‘totalitarianisms’ of philosophy, and leave humanity as an uncategorizable excess.

The first ‘spectre’ to be expounded is that of Platonism. Here we may allude to the exposition that Rosalind Krauss pursues based on the idea of a medium: a multiplicity of fields and boundaries that reify particular works of art. In her Post-Medium Condition, Krauss explicates how an art medium as such, serves as nothing but an “unworked physical support”, which ultimately, frequently leads to a formalism that consists of “objectification or reification” that subsumes works of art based on their physical properties5. The continuing modes of abstraction that had developed most predominantly in painting—where the canvas no longer even needs paint, or the unconventional usage of the canvas space in the works of Picasso and Pollock, but also in the literary works of Joyce, compositions of Schoenberg, and the “New Wave” film directors like Godard and Truffaut—all whom attacked the very foundations of the medium in which they carried out their artistic practice6. This general resistance towards subsumption of works of art under a medium can be explicated in Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on how artist’s action that initially manifests itself in a work of art which has not yet been formulated and categorized into an art medium as such. When Picasso revealed his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to the public in 1907—which today is considered to be one of the first proto-Cubist paintings—at the time, the painting did not have the category ‘Cubism’ immediately ascribed to it. Only subsequently were Picasso’s works formalized and defined into a genre of painting referred to as ‘Cubism’ known today. The manner in which a medium emerges out of a set of practices and manifestations; or how a genre of painting gains a category after autonomous artistic events that an artist like Picasso first realizes in the world, provides the grounds necessary for the genre of cubism to emerge as a category, which is succinctly explicated by Merleau-Ponty:

[T]he artist launches his work just as a man once launched the first word, not knowing whether it will be anything more than a shout, whether it can detach itself from the flow of individual life in which it was born and give the independent existence of an identifiable meaning to the future of the same individual life, or to the monads coexisting with it, or to the open community of future monads7.

This so called ‘launching’ of a word is precisely what is deemed by Merleau-Ponty as pre-objective manifestation of an act; in Levinas terms, this act can be deemed as an infinity of an ’Other’ (autrui) that has not yet been subsumed to the totality of the ‘Same’ (eidos). This quote nevertheless captures the general theme of what is at stake in what can be generalized as a remnant of Platonism that subsumes particulars under universals or the Other into the Same. It is precisely under these specters of Platonism that can be observed in what Marx described as the process of market exchange that subsumes things to a commodity form, but also prescribes a medium to artworks and homogenizes objects based on their means of exchange, abstracted categories, and distribution—all which can be seen as a reduction of particulars into Platonic forms and universals, the totalizations of the Same. Krauss’s exposition of Broodthaers’ and Kosuth’s work of art can be deemed as an attempt to challenge this homogenization and commodification of works of art as they become labeled under a totalized medium. As as revolt against these multiplicity of subsumptions that prevail in modernity, modernism, attempts escape the effects of the market exchange which subsume and reify products of labor to their exchange value—including works of art, through a subversion of its ‘material support’, a medium through which reification and commodification itself occurs8. By accounting every work of art as a ready-made, one not only escapes the ability of the market to homogenize particular objects through the process of market exchange and commodification, but also denying the reduction and subsumption of works to a homogenizing medium as such9. As Greenberg, Clark and Krauss all argue, the move that Pollock had made by creating his drip paintings on canvases placed on the floor prior to hanging them on the wall, is precisely the move the attempts “to transform the whole project of art from making objects, in their increasingly reified form, to articulating the vectors that connect (art) objects to subjects.”10 The ultimate aim of this process is to escape homogenization by producing specific artworks “and [an] experience of their own necessity”.11 By choosing to paint on the floor12, Pollock sought to express a pre-objective phenomenological impulse that escaped the preordained and reified standards that dictate how a painting must be delivered and presented to its viewer. It is precisely in this pre-structured process of delivery that a work of art gets deprived from its phenomenological significance.

To follow our encounter of three main specters, we proceed to that of Newtonism. The basis of this resistance is drawn in Marleau-Ponty’s explication of a theory of embodiment that consists of experiences, desires, gestures, speech and the arts, serving as grounds for the constitution of meaning13. The foundation of this thought is the particular notion of spatiality and temporality in which one’s milieu is grounded in. It is a phenomenology of our lived being-in-the-world in which the depth of our spatial experiences is not understood according to the pre-assumed and linear three-dimensional empirical understanding of spatiality, but lived in a phenomenological “primordial depth” as the “most existential dimension“14. This form of spatiality is what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the lived perspective, in which perception is not geometrical, nor a mimetic photographic one15. In his essay “Eye and Mind”, Merleau-Ponty demonstrated how when one looks at a painting, one’s “gaze wanders within it as in the halos of Being. Rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.”16 In this essay, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes on how a painter approaches a work of painting through a very particular manner of apprehending the things that one surrounds oneself; it is a “carnal presence” that becomes reflected in the milieus of the artist’s body schemas. A work of art expresses precisely this experience of the artist, which is an experience that is offered to the eyes of the beholder through the experience of their own body. An artwork therefore can be seen as not only conforming with the lived experience of the beholder, but—and this is the crucial point—the artwork itself offers the beholder an experience to be lived through.

The way in which the notion of action is drawn out of Merleau-Ponty’s “Cézzanne’s Doubt” can be interpreted as a theory of artistic creation in which the self is integrated with the world17. In this process, the mind plays a role other than the one within the mind-body Cartesian split; instead of being mere receptors for light, rays, colors, and lines that the mind then conceptualizes, the “mind goes out through the eyes to wander among objects”18; by quoting Andre Marchand, Merleau-Ponty states, “I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it”19. Indeed, this is deemed as response to Descartes’ metaphysical epistemology manifested in his ‘First Philosophy’ doctrine where the world outside awaits its apprehension by the mind20. Perhaps, one of the most interesting tensions that can be explicated in Merleau-Ponty’s position of defying the empirical three-dimensional space in favor of a lived spatiality, is its immediate confrontation that is poses with Donald Judd’s theory of ‘Specific Objects’. In his theory of ‘Specific Objects’, Judd attempts to dissolve the distinctness of medium that exists between a sculpture and a painting by homogenizing them into particular and specific objects—by reducing them to “three dimensional works” whose spatiality pre-assumes a Newtonian three-dimensional empirical space. Krauss also mentions precisely this paradoxical nature of Judd’s ‘Specific Objects’ theory, which explicates a reduction that ultimately is not specific, but general.21 Merleau-Ponty would reject Judd’s homogenization of sculpture and painting precisely on the grounds that it pre-assumes a three-dimensional space. Instead, the flatness of a painting is precisely that grounds a field in which a lived perspective can emerge through the pre-objective spatiality experienced by the beholder. By reducing both sculpture and painting and objects to homogenized coordinates within the three-dimensional perspective, one deprives the ground for a lived experience, and arguably, puts constrains on the ontological possibility of action and autonomy of works of art that manifest themselves as lived experiences of the creator and the beholder.

This is precisely what can be drawn from Cezanne’s departure from Impressionism which attempted to capture “the very way in which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses”22. Although this approach nevertheless works in the realm of appearances if taken in the context of Plato’s critique of art, it is no longer an appearance of an appearance that is twice removed from reality—a gap between which only philosophy can provide a bridge23—rather, in a way, appearance becomes only once removed from reality while also challenges its status of removal within the Platonic reality-appearance dichotomy. In resolving the brute dichotomies between what Sartre would call subjectivism and objectivism, which embodies the dualistic splits between mind and body, subject and world, individual and collective, imagination and perception, etc.; Merleau-Ponty demonstrates how Cézanne sought to overcome these dichotomous splits through an attempt of pursuing reality while not abandoning the immediate perception of nature24. Here, the underlying process of how reality is constituted is redefined in which chaos and order are no longer brute dichotomies, rather instead, the “birth of order” occurs through “spontaneous organization”25. Here it can be seen how this phenomenological outlook also serves as a ground for a theory of agency and action. Even the strict relation between cause and effect becomes redefined in Cézanne who goes beyond the effect by re-integrating the effect into the cause26; similar to how Merleau-Ponty re-integrates the body and the mind as a form of embodied knowledge; but also world and the subject, collective and the individual.

Although Cézanne manifests a form of naturalism in which “man [is] added to nature”27 in which the imitation process is naturalized while also alienating oneself from his humanity through a form of de-anthropomorphisation in the proclamation that “a face should be painted as an object”; it also entailed deeply human traits, where Cézanne‘s embodied experience played a crucial role in the study of appearances as apposed to being merely and incarnation of imagined scenes and dreams28. Since our lived experiences are carried out amidst man-made objects, Merleau-Ponty claims that Cézanne realized how human action and experience become mediated through the the usage of these tools; as Heidegger in his Question Concerning Technology refers to as an “enframing” process of technology that mediates our being and experience with the world. But as Merleau-Ponty expounds, Cézanne sought to step away from humanity, precisely for the sake of revealing the latent base of “inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself” by providing an outlet through which this inhumanity can be revealed29. This in general, can be easily interpreted as a critical discourse of modernity and post-modernity, one that a cultural critic like Adorno and Jameson might pursue, but it can also be traced back to the tensions that existed in antiquity: as Nietzsche described in his Birth of Tragedy, the prevalence of Socratism and Platonism in Greek arts in which the realm of Apollonian order, rationality, dreams and imaginations—excluded the opposite Dionysian artistic drives that manifest themselves in bodily pleasures, suffering, intoxication and dissolution. As Camus states by paraphrasing Nietzsche: “We have art in order to not die of truth”30. If the manifestation behind practices of modern art figures can be explicated, then it is precisely in the words of Camus above: these artists implicitly wagged a fight against modernity’s Socratic realism that perpetuates death. If Cezzanne’s pseudo-anti-human artistic impulse (and to some degree Pollock’s love-hate flirtation with psychoanalytic themes31) can be explicated, then this impulse can be deemed as not necessarily directed against humanity, but as a manifestation of a semi-paranoid revolt against the three specters that haunted them, at which, these artists threw their shouts but abstained from making them explicit. Here, we may once again refer to the Merleau-Ponty’s quote mentioned above: “[T]he artist launches his work…not knowing whether it will be anything more than a shout…”7.

As Krauss seeks to circumvent the institutionalization and commodification of art, Merleau-Ponty as well declares that institutions turn painting into an enclosed sterile, sanitary “historicity of death”32. To circumvent this process, Merleau-Ponty urges a return the subject-matter of painting to the base of living work and a renouncement of entrenched structured and often bureaucratic art institutions. Since the relationship between politics and art are closely correlated, it is impossible to separate these two and account them solely on their own terms; just as the problematic that arises in the Cartesian separation of mind and body, the same problem appertains to the attempt of separating philosophy from art, and vice versa33. It is precisely in the incapacity to apprehend art purely analytically that allows art to embody agency within the realm of “political metaphysics”34 and its potential to weave “political history of the world…[that takes] place on a different level of causation” and historical process35. For art to embody this form of potential, it must avoid its surrender to philosophy, and consider the ambiguity that lies between reason and unreason. In certain theories of history, such as Marxism, art does not play a constitutive base for determining historical change, but rather, posits art as a product of the already pre-established superstructure36 (which is precisely what socialist realism attempts to challenge and overcome). This dichotomy can be assimilated to the one found in Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, where the free for-itself subject is in opposition with the determined in-itself subject; in Marx, an exact dichotomy is presented as an opposition between “the humanism of proletarian action…[and] the objective market forces of capital production and exchange”37. For Merleau-Ponty, what allows the creation of a “historical event” that gives agency to human interchanges in time, is a form of art that reflects the experiences of artists and beholders 38:

The painter can do no more than construct an image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist on only one of them like a stubborn dream of persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition39.

Perhaps, what is the ultimate take-away from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its conjunction with Krauss’s aesthetic theory, is an emphasis on the possibility of re-affirming human action and being-among-others amidst the hegemonic process of modernity that homogenize, neutralize, and sterilize subjectivity, while similarly also reifying and subsuming works of art under the categories of a medium or a style. What this ultimately amounts to, is a suppression of human agency by a determinacy of dictating reifying and objectifying laws according to which society can be structured through the specters of Newtonian three-dimensional space, and the Cartesian split between mind and body.

As demonstrated, the essay did no go in depth into an analysis of Platonism, Newtonism and Cartesiansim, precisely because of the nature of the subject-matter: specters which haunt modernity, postmodernity, and the ground on which the political, phenomenological and ontological potential of art is determined and confined. As was attempted to be demonstrated in the essay, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is the basis on which the hegemony of these specters can be brought up to the surface from their latent slumber, and through Levinas, its ethical and political dimension expounded.

  1. Emmanuel Levinas, edited by Adriaan T. Perperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi; Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.5. 

  2. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, p.4. 

  3. Derrida, Specters of Marx (New YorkL: Routledge, 1994), p. xviii, (emphasis my own). 

  4. Derrida, p. 221, (emphasis my own). 

  5. Rosalind Krauss, Voyage on The North Sea (Thames & Hudson, 1999), pp. 6-7. 

  6. James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. p. 108. 

  7. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 69 (emphasis my own).  2

  8. Krauss, p. 15. 

  9. Krauss, p. 21. 

  10. Krauss, p. 26. 

  11. r

  12. T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 323-4. 

  13. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 9. 

  14. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 12. 

  15. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader

  16. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 126. 

  17. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 13. 

  18. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 128. 

  19. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 129. 

  20. Rene Descartes, Meditations, “First Objection”, pp. 102-3. 

  21. Krauss, p. 10. 

  22. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 61. 

  23. Thierry De Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MIT Press, Mass., 1996), p.5. 

  24. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 63. 

  25. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 63. 

  26. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 71. 

  27. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 69. 

  28. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 61. 

  29. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, pp. 66-67. 

  30. Albert Camus, trans. Justin O’Brien; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p.94. 

  31. T. J. Clark, pp. 345-65 

  32. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, pp. 23-4. 

  33. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, p.5 

  34. Ibid. 

  35. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, p.3 

  36. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, p.18 

  37. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 26. 

  38. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 24. 

  39. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 70.